Seeing another reference to snake handling prompted me to scribble something. Yep, it’s a pretty strange movement. What usually gets omitted, however, is that it’s hardly a new thing.
As much as it pains me to agree with Jim Goad on about anything, I think he hit the nail right on its head when he pointed out that snake handling , speaking in tongues, and the like make White Americans much more uncomfortable when the people putting on the show are also perceived as White. His general thesis is wrong, though, in assuming that the folks involved really are White, never taking Native influences (nor our continued presence) into account.
Learning more about my heritage, I was interested to notice the geographical overlap between some areas of Hopewell and Mississippian cultures and where one finds later snake handling practices. (Those maps, too, omit certain areas, through sheer lack of study.) It’s no secret that during the Mississippian period in particular, snakes held great symbolic significance, to the point that “The main focus of Mississippian art shifted from Woodland naturalism to an emphasis on snakes, god-animal beings, and birds with warlike tendencies, resulting in unprecedented imagery with an otherworldly and power-charged essence.” (link) This came as part of a new social and religious movement, probably influenced by Mayans:
The best-known Mississippian religious movement is popularly known as the Southern Cult, although most archeologists today prefer the less evocative phrase Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The central tenets of this cult or religion were transmitted through rituals and through the exchange of sacred objects emblazoned with symbols such as falcons, crosses, and rattlesnakes. Often the iconography depicts scenes of violence and warfare, such as warrior figures holding weapons and decapitated heads. . .
The Southern Cult was exclusive—only certain individuals and kin groups participated, thus supporting the authority of the chiefs. They alone could handle, wear, and own the most sacred symbols, which were no doubt perceived as possessing power and being too dangerous for any but the chosen few to handle.
Compare to the example of Adodaroh, ” the deeply feared and powerful shaman of the Onondagas, whose snake and cannibal [wétiko] cult had terrorized the people into submission for many years” further north, at about the same time. Also the deposed Ani Kutani among the Cherokee (also overthrown for their wétiko behavior, by most accounts). I may not be able to find any references right now, but people following this religious movement had rituals in which they handled venomous snakes. For all I know, they may have babbled and writhed around on the ground in religious ecstasy, as well. Some of those other Holiness practices appeal to modern snake handlers, and are not typical of other approaches to Christianity. It also does not surprise me that the same folks would take on different wétiko trappings, as times changed.
Interestingly, while looking for something else, I just ran across an article on “Native Spiritualism vs. Evangelical Christianity in Southeast Alaska”. It’s not too surprising that, connections to economic conditions aside, some aspects of Pentecostal movements might appeal to people with more history of participatory, possibly ecstatic (don’t know much about Alaskan traditions) non-Christian religious practices. One perception expressed in the last linked article was interesting: ““You meet white evangelicals from America, they behave like Africans. They are vibrant, everything is done with vigour.” Back home, I’m sure the far more egalitarian approach appealed to a lot of people, especially coming from a background which had at least as many female spiritual workers. (Not that the whole package has been good for women’s status, mind you.) The hierarchical chiefdom setup may not have gained much popularity in Appalachia, but other Mississippian cultural influences flowed in.* The snake handlers are a distinct ideological subgroup, still. It really looks a lot like Vodoun or Santería.
It does not seem entirely coincidental that a thousand years ago, there was a small minority who messed with snakes for religious purposes living up exactly the same hollers where you find the same thing today. AFAICT, most people considered this strange behavior back then, too. Most of the followers today probably really believe that they’re inspired more by Christianity, after better than a century of having to apply the same kind of thin veneer which brings us the Stanley Brothers’ “love for God” as a camouflaging euphemism for the more Native “balance and peace in your life”.
It’s also striking how frequently the above examples are used as indications of how deeply and truly wacked out we hillbillies must be. (Never mind that the region’s historically had the lowest church membership rate in the country.) So is West Virginia’s rather classic legal approach, of letting them behave as bizarrely as they like, so long as they don’t endanger kids or other people just not interested in messing with pit vipers. Makes perfect sense to me.
* The seemingly hierarchical setup elsewhere may very well have been down to faulty interpretation by European observers, who were expecting to see some kind of hierarchy. That’s the kind of social system they were used to living under, and later interpretations are based on what these primary sources thought they were looking at. This is how the man Powhatan (Wahunsunacock) got to be an emperor, accompanied by his many “wives”–i.e., the women’s council for whom he was serving as diplomatic speaker, as part of his job as sachem! Note that “Much of a sachem’s leadership depended on establishing consensus”. Barbara Mann goes pretty deeply into this kind of misinterpretation based on completely clashing worldviews, in her Iroquoian Women, which I keep pushing for good reason. 🙂 Here’s some discussion of “rank” in Mississippian societies: “The living Maya seems very much as a people not unlike what Wilma Mankiller describes of the Cherokee. The egalitarian, spiritual, and general cultural framework of the present day Maya does not fit well with a society that once was structured and hierarchical.” I still suspect that there were some people who got power hungry, with some limited success at trampling over others during the Mississippian period–and that some of them tried to use religion as a bludgeon, then as now.